Edward Hopper is one of the most interesting painters of the 20th Century. Hopper's subject matter comes from the common features of American life (gas stations, motels, apartments, restaurants, theaters, railroads, offices, and street scenes) and the people who inhabit these spaces. He also painted seascapes and rural landscapes. He had a singular style and vision that stayed consistent as various movements and trends evolved and changed around him.
His figure paintings focus on the subtle interaction of human beings with their environment. There are solo figures, couples and groups and the works carry the emotional themes of solitude, loneliness, regret, boredom, and resignation. They have a film-like quality as if something has happened or is about to happen.
His paintings are composed by creating environments with geometric designs around the subject or subjects. The compositions are carefully thought out and the elements are arranged with a perfect balance. There is also a psychological depth to the work because the light and shadow in the paintings create a mood that is comparable to the cinematography of film noir.
House by The Railroad (1925) depicts an isolated Victorian wood mansion in a field by a railroad. This painting is the first of a series of stark rural and urban scenes that use sharp lines and large shapes with atmospheric lighting creating a mood of isolation and loneliness. He was a realist, but he simplified the shapes and details and reduced the picture to a few basic shapes creating a minimal realism. He used saturated colors to heighten the contrast and add to the mood. This painting had an influence on several films including the house in Psycho by Hitchcock, and the house in Terence Malick's Days of Heaven.
Early Sunday Morning (1930) shows an empty street scene in sharp side light. There is a fire hydrant and a barber pole on the street in front of a row of windows on a red building, but Hopper left out any human figures to heighten the feeling of desolation.
Hopper's solitary figures are usually women - dressed, semi-clad, and nude - often reading, or looking out of a window, or in the workplace.
When painting couples, they seem alienated and uncommunicative. Often the viewer takes on the role of the voyeur spying on the tension between the couple. In Office at Night (1940) Hopper creates a psychological puzzle with a sensual undercurrent. The man focuses on his work while his attractive secretary pulls a file. There is an eroticism and tension heightened by the high angle view looking down on the couple.
One of his best-known paintings is Nighthawks (1942). It depicts customers at the counter of an all-night diner. The shapes and diagonals are carefully constructed. The viewpoint is cinematic - from the sidewalk, as if the viewer is approaching the restaurant. The diner's harsh electric light sets it apart from the dark night outside, enhancing the mood. The interaction is minimal except for the counterman having a few words with one of the men. The inspiration for the painting came from the short stories The Killers and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway. Hopper stated that the painting had more to do with the possibility of predators in the night than with loneliness.
Gas (1940) presents a fusion of several Hopper themes, the solitary figure, the melancholy of dusk, and the lonely road.
Hopper claimed that he didn't consciously embed psychological meaning into his paintings. He was interested in Freud and the power of the subconscious mind, but he felt the meaning came not from a conscious effort but subconsciously through the act of conceiving and executing the painting.